Gemma Gaitskell
Dr Gemma Gaitskell (BVetMed MSc MRCVS, Royal Veterinary College, London)
Arthritis in Dogs

Arthritis is a degenerative condition that is often seen in older dogs and can be either primary, or secondary due to a variety of causes. Cartilage in the joints becomes damaged and this leads to changes, which eventually cause stiffness and pain, ultimately affecting a dog's ability to move normally and maintain a good quality of life. Early recognition and treatment is important to try and relieve the symptoms of arthritis before they become debilitating.

What is Arthritis?

Arthritis in dogs is caused by the degeneration of the cartilage that covers the surfaces of the bone in the joint. This degeneration causes a reduction in joint range of movement and is often painful. Cartilage found within joints acts as a type of cushion, absorbing impact. It is also smooth, allowing the bones forming the joint to move easily over each other. When it becomes damaged the consequences are seen in terms of effects on the normal function of the joint involved, ultimately affecting ease of movement.

The thinning of cartilage causes an accumulation of fluid within the joint and the development of small bony growths around the joint which impede its normal function. The degeneration of cartilage in the joint can be caused by a range of factors, such as injury to the joint, infection, immune-mediated conditions and abnormal development. The word ‘arthritis’ comes from Greek and means ‘inflammation of the joint’. In dogs, arthritis is also often referred to as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease (DJD).

How Do Dogs Get Arthritis and When are They Most at Risk?

Arthritis is a degenerative condition and it is therefore generally seen more commonly in older dogs, although this can depend on the cause of the arthritis. Arthritis can be primary (idiopathic – of unknown cause) or secondary, where it is caused by another known condition or joint disease. It often develops over a prolonged period of time and can take months to years until clinical signs become obvious. Arthritis is more common in certain joints such as those of the back, elbows, knees, hips and wrists or ankles, however, it can theoretically occur in any joint in the body.

Which Breeds Are Most Commonly Affected by Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a common disease in dogs and any breed of dog can be affected. However, some breeds are more likely to suffer from primary osteoarthritis than others. Although not proven it is thought there is a genetic factor in breeds which are affected by primary degenerative joint disease. These breeds include:

Symptoms of Arthritis in Dogs

Older dog with arthritis

The following are some common signs of arthritis that are often seen in dogs:

  • Joint swelling and heat
  • Lameness, stiffness and hunched posture
  • Pain
  • Muscle wastage
  • Reduced joint mobility
  • Crepitation (crackling) in the joint in severe cases

In addition to these specific signs of arthritis some dogs may show other more generalised signs, related to their behaviour and habits, which are often attributed to old age before the problem is recognised. These can include:

  1. Changes in activity levels, meaning more time spent sleeping, less interest in toys, hesitant to jump or go up and down stairs, avoidance of certain types of surfaces which are hard or slippery.
  2. Changes in behaviour, such as: anxiety, aggression, signs of discomfort such as grunting when getting up or lying down, less enthusiasm to go on walks or greet people.
  3. Some dogs may spend a lot of time licking or chewing at the joint or joints affected.

Diagnosis of Arthritis in Dogs

Arthritis in dogs is usually diagnosed using a combination of clinical signs, radiography and arthrocentesis where a small sample of joint fluid is taken for analysis. X-rays are useful for evaluating how much damage there is to the joint and the degree of arthritis present.

Signs, such as the bony outgrowths that form, fluid in the joint, narrowing of the joint space and changes in the bone below the cartilage are often visible. Together with the clinical signs these diagnostic tests allow a decision to be taken on the most appropriate treatment options for the dog in question.

Can Arthritis in Dogs Be Treated?

Treatment options for arthritis in dogs can be to do with management, and are either medical or surgical depending on the severity and location of the joint or joints which are affected. There is a range of different treatments, but some of the most common treatment options include:

  • Weight reduction to reduce stress on joints
  • Physiotherapy and carefully controlled exercise on soft surfaces under expert supervision to help strengthen muscles and increase range of movement
  • Encourage regular movement, as inactivity can cause a worsening of signs
  • Use of hot and cold therapy on affected joints to reduce inflammation and pain
  • Joint supplements, such as chondroitin sulphate, glucosamine and essential fatty acids amongst others which can help to slow cartilage degeneration
  • Anti-inflammatory medication such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or corticosteroids, although longer term use of anti-inflammatory medications can cause unwanted side effects so these must be prescribed and monitored by a veterinarian
  • Surgical options that range from various procedures to reduce pain from arthritis, such as joint fusion (arthrodesis) to joint replacement
  • Acupuncture

Dogs that are suffering from arthritis should be monitored regularly by a veterinarian to ensure their treatment programme is appropriate and that any medications are not causing unwanted side effects. The prognosis for dogs suffering from arthritis depends on the severity of the joint degeneration and the location of the joint affected, which also influence the treatment options that are appropriate and available.

Preventing Arthritis in Dogs

Dogs on a countryside walk

There are various predisposing factors which can increase the risk of arthritis in dogs. Some of these include:

Genetic Conditions and Abnormal or Poor Joint Conformation

There are health schemes that aim to control the prevalence of inherited conditions such as hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia and osteochondrosis dessicans (OCD). Poor conformation can cause joints to be placed under additional stress and pressure and this can eventually cause arthritis to develop.

Breeders are encouraged to participate in these schemes and dogs which are intended for breeding should have undergone the relevant tests if there is a known predisposition in a breed for a certain condition. In the United Kingdom, the British Veterinary Association (BVA) and The Kennel Club are responsible for many of these schemes. If you are thinking of buying a pure breed puppy, you should investigate whether the breed is prone to any of these problems and ensure that the breeder has had the parents tested.

Responsible breeders will have had their dogs evaluated and should be trying to breed in a way that minimises the prevalence of any inherited conditions in a breed as much as possible. Careful selection of a puppy by informing yourself about its family history is the best way of avoiding having to deal with the sometimes devastating effects that some inherited conditions which lead to arthritis can have.

Obesity and Exercise

It is also important to try and minimise the environmental factors that can contribute to arthritis developing. This means ensuring that your dog is fed an appropriate diet and does not become overweight, which adds stress to joints, as well as tailoring exercise to a level that is appropriate for the age and breed of dog.

Infection and Autoimmune Disease

Infection and autoimmune disease where the body attacks itself and therefore destroys cartilaginous tissue can also be responsible for damage in joints.


Injury or trauma to a joint can lead to secondary arthritis. Once a joint has been injured it is often inevitable that arthritis will eventually develop. However good rehabilitation, weight control and appropriate exercise as well as joint supplements can help to slow development and minimise its effects.

The Importance of Early Treatment of Arthritis

Arthritis is a degenerative condition that gradually becomes worse overtime. Early recognition of any joint conditions and injuries, and taking early action in the form of treatment and management measures such as weight control and symptomatic relief can help to slow development and improve long-term quality of life for dogs suffering from arthritis. Responsible breeding from dogs that do not have a genetic history of conditions that lead to arthritis is also important.


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